The Four Note-Taking Mindsets

A simple method for mindfully using note-taking and other productivity tools.

Cameron Flint
5 min readMay 13, 2023
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

How is it that our favorite note-taking applications can perfectly fit the majority of everyday needs, and yet frustratingly leave out that “essential” feature or two? Why is it that with an assortment of otherwise fantastically powerful note-taking software, we might struggle to build a coherent system?

Of course we know that different tools cater to different scenarios. For example, read-it-later software like Pocket or Instapaper is clearly intended for a different purpose than Google Calendar. But between, say, Evernote and Notion, there is a sizable gray area. Amid the constellation of similar-seeming options to choose between and the variety of everyday life, what we’re missing, perhaps, is a straightforward mental model with which to reason about and categorize our tools.

The four categories that I would like to introduce to you are inspired by distinct “moods” or “mindsets.” In this system, there are at least four such mindsets: the productive mindset, the curious mindset, the imaginative mindset, and the reflective mindset. Let’s dive in.

Being productive

Craft for the productive mindset.

The first and most prevalent mindset is the productive one. In this mode, I am interested in tracking my everyday responsibilities at work and at home, staying on top of my commitments to myself and to others, keeping lists of priorities, and taking down information that’s required to accomplish my goals. Note that being “productive” doesn’t just have to be about work — one can be intentional about play, too.

Central productivity objects include dates of various granularity (day, week, month, etc.), people, projects, teams, events, meetings, topics, and areas of responsibility. The tools that I use for productive note-taking will have capabilities that shine in the area of tracking tasks, taking date-focused notes, and collecting immediately useful resources.

Being curious

Roam Research for the curious mindset

The second mindset is the curious one. In this mode, I’m keenly interested in keeping track of what I’m learning and doing across all dimensions of life in order to master my craft, be a better-informed citizen, be a loving partner, and so forth. The means of doing so is to collect and connect ideas, synthesizing them by rewriting their essence in my own words.

Time is still a relevant dimension to the learning mindset (so that I have a history of my progress), but it’s a secondary organizational feature to the diverse subjects, topics, people of interest, and other domain-specific objects that I collect. Over time the information I gather here becomes my prized “knowledge bank.”

Tools that I use for learning-focused note-taking will have strengths in the areas of information capture, organization of information, and knowledge classification. Note-taking software for this purpose benefits from both hierarchical and associative relationships, meaning that affordances like links, tags, and back-references are useful in addition to folders.

Being imaginative

mymind for the imaginative mindset

The third mindset is a dream-like one, the area where soul and body meet. In this mode I care the most about collecting items of aesthetic, beauty, and transcendent wisdom. My aim when collecting items of this kind is to build a sort of mind palace or a zen garden, into which I can retreat at any time in order to refresh and inspire my mood.

The tools that I use for dreaming are those that cater to the artistic and creative types. These often have capabilities for building art boards, mood boards, swipe files, and other visual arrangements. Organization is extremely loose in this corner of my system, with only broad “buckets” or “pools” being necessary to collect the images, quotes, color palettes, links, screenshots, and such things. Serendipity is the name of the game.

Being reflective

Day One for the reflective mindset

The fourth mindset is a private one. In this mode, I’m alone with my innermost thoughts and feelings. The notes that I take in my diary relate to and record day-to-day events, while being intertwined tightly with my subjective experience of those events. Hopes, fears, joys, frustrations, and the full spectrum of emotions plays out on these private pages.

Capabilities that matter most to my diary tool are privacy features like end-to-end encryption and PIN locks, because the content of my diary is off-limits to anyone but myself. Maintaining the integrity of such a private sanctum is crucial because otherwise I won’t trust it with my most vulnerable writings, and self-censoring inhibits reflection.

More software recommendations

If the choices above don’t suit your fancy, here are a few additional recommendations in each of the four mindset categories.

If you really want to use as few apps as possible, then Notion is probably the most general-purpose software currently on the market.


These are the four mindsets that I currently use to frame my relationship with note-taking tools. Certainly none of these modes exists in a vacuum, and there will always be some degree of overlap in practice. But since I’ve kept the number of categories low, my hope is that it’s easy enough to choose the “best fit” for any given scenario.

If you have thoughts or opinions from your own experience in note-taking, I’d love to hear about them. Leave a comment below or send me an email at cameron_sea {at} fastmail {dot} com. All the best!



Cameron Flint

Diving deep on topics related to note-taking, personal information management, and software engineering, with occasional diversions to less nerdy things.